RIDING THE RODS
FOURTEEN years old and strong, I was ready – an American Whittington who knew a better way to get places than by walking. The “clear the way” whistle of a fast freight thundering over the crossing on the tracks a mile away was a siren call. Sneaking away from my farm home one night, I made my way to the distant yards. Ducking along a lane between two made-up trains that seemed endless, I made my way to the edge of the yards. Here and there I passed a silent, waiting figure. Then a little group talking among themselves. Edging in, I listened eagerly. I had met my first hoboes. They talked of places I had never heard of. This town was good. A fellow could get by on the Bowery all winter if he knew the ropes; that other town was “hostile”; thirty days for “vag” awaited you in another if you didn’t hit the cinders before the road “bulls” fine-combed the train.
Then they noticed me. Somehow a new kid is always an object of interest to the adventurers of the rails. “Where ye makin’ for, Kid?”
I had heard one of them mention “Dee-troit” and it seemed as good an answer as any. I had no plans, just wanted to get away – anywhere – just away!
“That Michigan Manifest will be along any minute now; I think she’s moving.” The tall hobo who had spoken grabbed me by the arm. “Come on, kid. We’ll help you.”
Suddenly I felt big. I had gotten away! The two hoboes talked, the tall one about getting work in Detroit, the other arguing for staying on the road. Then the one who had boosted me up began to quiz me. I told him I had run away from the farm. In a sort of halting way he told me not to get the train habit or it would get me until I would always want to be moving. The rocking motion of the car as the train increased speed became a cradle song in my ears. I fell asleep.
It was way past dawn when I awoke. My two companions were already sitting up and talking. The day wore on. We passed through small towns. Soon the train was threading its way between factories and huge warehouses, crossing tracks with brisk clatter, coming into a large railway yard. Brakes went on. They helped me off. We were in Detroit.
My hobo friends parted at a street corner. The tall one took me along right into town and got a room for both of us with “Mother Kelly,” a kindly Irish landlady if there ever was one. “Sit tight, kid,” he said. “I’ll see you through as much as I can. Me to find a job.”
He got a job. For almost two years he looked after me. He was always vigilant, steering me past the snares and pitfalls that are always in the path of a growing boy. This hobo, Tom Casey, who never talked much about himself except as a warning illustration of “What not to do,” made me start a bank account and keep it growing. It is to him I owe the fact that I didn’t become a “road kid,” that I never became a hobo. Came a day when he left. The road was calling him, he explained, although that never seemed to me to be the reason. I never saw Tom Casey again, but from this man I received my first lesson in the guiding and compelling principle of the Good Life. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
I was city-wise by this time, uncontaminated to be sure, thanks to my friend. No longer a “boy rube in the big town.” I found a job quickly enough but I missed Tom. I began to hang around pool rooms and it was inevitable that I soon learned to handle a schooner of beer and an occasional “shot.” Jobs were plentiful. If I didn’t feel right in the morning after a night with the “corner gang” I didn’t go to work. I lost jobs. My bank account dwindled, disappeared entirely. My new barroom friends were little help. I was broke.
It was summer and the park benches, hard and uncomfortable as they were, appealed to me more than the squalid “flops” of the city’s slums. So I slept out a few nights. Young and full of energy, I hunted for work. The war was on and work was easy to get. I became a machine-shop hand, progressing rapidly from drill-press to milling machine to lathe. I could quit a job one day and have a new one the next with more money. Soon I again had a good boarding-house, clothes and money. But I never started another bank account. “Plenty of time for that,” I thought. My week-ends were spent in my conception of “a good time,” finally become regular carousals and debauches over Saturday and Sunday. I had the usual experiences of being slipped a “Mickey Finn” and getting slugged and rolled for my money. These had no deterrent effect. I could always get jobs and live comfortable again in a few weeks. Soon, however, I tired of the weary routine of working and drinking. I began to dislike the city. Somehow my boyhood days on the farm didn’t seem to be so bad at a distance.
No, I didn’t go home, but found work not too far away. I still drank. I soon got restless and took a freight for a Michigan city, arriving there broke late at night. I set out to look for friends. They helped me find work. Slowly I began to climb the industrial job ladder once more and eventually achieved a responsible position as a machine setter in a large plant. I was sitting on top of the world again. The sense of accomplishment I had now told me that I had earned the right to have enjoyable week-ends once more. The week-ends began to extend to Tuesday and Wednesday until I frequently worked only from Thursday to Saturday with the bottle always in my mind. In a vague sort of way I had set a time to quit drinking but that was at least fifteen years away and “What the hell!” I said to myself. “I’m going to have a good time while I’m young.”
Then I was fired. Piqued, I drank up my last pay check and when I got sober again found another job – then another – and another in quick succession. I was soon back on the park benches. And once more I got a break when everything seemed dark. An old friend volunteered to get me a job driving a bus. He said he would buy me a uniform and give me the hospitality of his home if I would promise to quit drinking. Of course I promised. I had been working about three days when the bus line superintendent called me into his office.
“Young fellow,” he said, “In your application you state that you don’t use alcoholic liquors. Now, we always check a man’s references and three of the firms you have worked for say you’re a highly capable man, but you have the drink habit.”
I looked at him. It was all true, I admitted, but I had been out of work such a long time that I had welcomed this job as an opportunity to redeem myself. I told him what I promised my friend, that I was sincerely doing my best and not drinking a drop. I asked him to give me a chance.
“Somehow I think you are in earnest,” he said. “I believe you mean it. I’ll give you a chance and help you to make good.”
He shook my hand in friendship and encouragement. I strode from his office with high hope. “John Barleycorn will never make a bum out of me again,” I told myself with determination.
For three months I drove my route steadily with never a hitch. My employers were satisfied. I felt pretty good. I was really on the wagon this time, wasn’t I?
Yes indeed, I was on the wagon for good. I soon repaid my debt to my friend for his stake in me and even saved a little money. The feeling of security increased. It was summer and, hot and tired at the end of the day, I began to stop in at a speakeasy on my way home. Detroit beer was good then, almost like old-time pre-prohibition stuff. “This is the way to do it,” I would say to myself. “Stick to beer. After all, it’s really a food and is sure hits the spot after a trick of wheeling that job around in this man’s town. It’s the hard liquor that gets a man down. Beer for mine.”
Even then with all the hard lessons of bitter experience behind me I did not realize that thinking along that line was a definite red light on my road in life – a real danger signal.
The evening glass of beer led, as usual, to the night when I didn’t get away from the bar until midnight. I began to need a bracer in the morning. Beer, I knew from experience was simply no good as a bracer – all right as a thirst quencher perhaps, but lacking action and authority the next morning. I needed a jolt.
The morning jolt became a habit. Then it got to be several jolts until I was generally pretty well organized when I started to work. Spacing my drinks over the day I managed not to appear drunk, just comfortable, as I drove along the crowded thoroughfares of the city. Then came the accident.
On one of the avenues a man darted from between parked cars right in my path. I swung the bus sharply over to keep from hitting him but couldn’t quite make it. He died in the hospital. Passenger and sidewalk witnesses absolved me completely. Even if I had been completely sober I couldn’t have cleared him. The company investigation immediately after the accident showed me blameless but my superiors knew I had been drinking. They fired me – not for the accident – but for drinking on the job.
Well, once more I felt I had enough of city life and found a job on an upstate farm. While there I met a young school-teacher, fell in love with her and she with me. We were married. Farm work was not very remunerative for a young couple so we went successively to Pontiac, Michigan and after to an industrial city in Ohio. For economy’s sake we had been living with my wife’s people, but somehow we never seemed able to get ahead. I was still drinking but no so much as formerly, or so it seemed to me.
The new location seemed ideal – no acquaintances, no entanglements, no boon companions to entice me. I made up my mind to leave liquor alone and get ahead. But I forgot one boon companion, one who was always at my elbow, one who followed me from city to farm and back to city. I had forgotten about John Barleycorn.
Even so, the good resolutions held for a time – new job, comfortable home, and understanding helpmate, they all helped. We had a son and soon came another. We began to make friends and moved in a small social circle of my fellow-workers and their wives and families. Those were still bootleg days. Drinks were always available but nobody seemed to get very drunk. We just had a good time, welcome surcease after a week of toil. Here were none of the rowdy debauches that I had known, I had discovered “social drinking” how to “drink like a gentleman and hold my liquor.” There is no point in reiterating the recurrence of experience already described. The “social drinking” didn’t hold up. I became the bootlegger’s first morning customer. How I ever managed to hold the job I don’t know. I began to receive the usual warning from my superiors. They had no effect. I had now come to an ever-deepening realization that I was a drunkard, that there was no help for me.
I told my wife that. She sought counsel of her friends and my friends. They came and talked with me. Reverend gentlemen, who knew nothing of my problem, pointed me to the age-old religious formula. I would have none of it. It left me cold. Now, with hope gone, I haunted the mean thoroughfares of speakeasy districts, with my mind on nothing but the next drink. I managed to work enough to maintain a slim hold on my job. Then I began to reason with myself.
“What good are you?” I would say. “Your wife and children would be better off if they never saw you again. Why don’t you get away and never come back? Let them forget about you. Get away – get away anywhere – that’s the thing to do.”
That night, coatless and hatless, I hopped a freight for Pittsburgh. The following day I walked the streets of the Smoky City. I offered to work at a roadside stand for a meal. I got the meal, walked on, sat down by the roadside to think.
“What a heel I’ve turned out to be!” I soliloquized. “My wife and two kids back there – no money – what can they do? I should have another try at it. Maybe I’ll never get well, but at least I can earn a dollar or two now than then – for them.”
I took another freight back home. Despite my absence, my job was still open. I went to work, but it was no go. I would throw a few dollars at my wife on payday and drink up what was left. I hated my surroundings, hated my job, my fellow-workers – the whole town. I tried Detroit again, landing there with a broken arm. How I got it I’ll never know for I was far gone in drink when I left. My wife’s relatives returned me to my home in a few days. I became morose, mooning around the house by myself. Seeing me come home, my wife would leave a little money on the table, grab the children and flee. I was increasingly ugly. Now, all hope was gone entirely. I made several attempts on my life. My wife had to hide any knives and hammers. She feared for her own safety. I feared for my mind – feared that I was breaking – that I would end up insane. Finally the fear got so terrible that I asked my wife to have me “put away” legally. There came a morning when, alone in my room, I began to wreck it, breaking everything in sight. Desperate, my wife had to employ the means I had suggested to her in the depths of alcoholic despair. Loath to have me committed to the state asylum, still trying to save something from the wreckage of my life and hers, she had me placed in a hospital, hoping against hope to save me.
I was placed under restraint. The treatment was strenuous – no alcohol – just bromides and sleeping potions. The nights were successions of physical and mental agony. It was weeks before I could sit still for any length of time. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and cared less to listen. That gradually wore off and one day I fell into casual conversation with another patient – another alcoholic. We began to compare notes. I told him frankly that I was in despair, that no thinking I had ever been able to do had shown me a way of escape, that all my attempts to try will power (well meaning persons had often said, “Why don’t you use your will power?” – as if will power were a faculty one could turn on and off like a faucet!) had been of no avail.
“Being in here and getting fixed up temporarily,” I told him bitterly, “is no good. I know that only too well. I can see nothing but the same old story over again. I’m simply unable to quit. When I get out of here I’m going to blow town.”
My fellow-patient and new found acquaintance looked at me a long time in silence and finally spoke. From the most unexpected quarter in the world, from a man who was in the same position I was in, from a fellow-alcoholic, came the first ray of hope I had seen.
“Listen, fellow,” he said, looking at me with ten times the earnestness of the many good citizens and other well-intentioned persons who had tried their best to help me. “Listen to me. I know a way out. I know the only answer. And I know it works.”
I stared at him in amazement. There were several mild mental cases in the place and, little as I knew about their exhibitions or tendencies, I knew that even in a normal conversation, strange ideas might be expected. Was this fellow perhaps a bit balmy – a wee bit off? Here was a man, an admitted alcoholic like myself, trying to tell me he knew the remedy for my situation. I wanted to hear what he had to suggest but made the reservation that he was probably a little “nutty.” At the same time I was ready to listen, like any drowning man, to grasp at even a straw.
My friend smiled, he knew what I was thinking. “Yes,’ he continued. “Forget that I’m here. Forget that I’m just another ‘rummy.’ But I had the answer once – the only answer.”
He seemed to be recalling his very recent past. Looking at me earnestly, his voice impressive in its sincerity, he went on. “For more than a year before coming here I was a sober man, thoroughly dry. I wasn’t just on the wagon. I was dry! And I would still be dry if I had stuck to the plan which kept me sober all that time.”
Let me say here that he later went back to the very plan he told me about and has since been sober for more than a year for the second time.
He told me his own story briefly and went on to tell me of a certain cure for alcoholism – the only certain cure. I had anticipated hearing of some new treatment, some newly discovered panacea that I had not heard of, something which no doubt combined drugs and mental healing. But it was neither one nor the other; it was certainly not a mixture of any kind.
He spoke of some 30 men in my town who were ready to take me by the hand and call me by my first name. They would be friends without canting or ranting. He told me they met once a week to talk over their experiences, how they tried to help each other, how the spent their time in helping me like me.
“I know it sounds strange, incredible, maybe,” he said. “I slipped, got drunk after being sober for a year, but I’m going back to try again. I know it works.”
Helpless, without faith in myself or anyone else, entirely doubtful that the fellow really had something, I began to ask questions. I had to be interested or go crazy.
“How do you go about this – where do I have to go?” I asked. “You don’t have to go anywhere,” he said. “Someone will come to you if you want them to.” He didn’t go into any detail, just told me that much and little more. I did some thinking that afternoon. Calling one of the nurses I asked her to get in touch with my wife and have her come to see me that evening.
She came during visiting hours. She expected, I know, to hear me plead for instant release from the place. I didn’t talk about that. In my lame way I told her the story. It made little impression.
“It doesn’t sound right,” she said. “If this plan – and for the life of me I don’t quite get it from what you’ve told me – if this plan is successful, why is this fellow back here himself?”
I was stumped. I was too ignorant about the thing myself to be capable of explaining it clearly to her. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll admit it sounds queer, the way this fellow is and all that, but somehow I feel there’s something to it. Anyhow, I want to know more about it.”
She went away skeptically. But the next day I had a visitor, a doctor who had been himself an alcoholic. He told me little more about the plan. He was kindly, didn’t offer any cut and dried formula to overcome my life-long difficulty. He presented no religious nostrums, suggested no saving rituals. Later he sent some of the other ex-problem drinkers to see me.
A few days later my fellow-alcoholic was released, and shortly afterward I was allowed to go home also. Through the man who had first told me of the plan I was introduced to several ex-problem drinkers. They told me their experiences. Many were men of former affluence and position. Some had hit even lower levels than I had.
The first Wednesday evening after my release found me a somewhat shame-faced but intensely curious attendant at a gathering in a private home in this city. Some forty others were present. For the first time I saw a fellowship I had never known in actual operation. I could actually feel it. I learned that this could be mine, that I could win my way to sobriety and sanity of I would follow a few precepts, simple in statement, but profound and far-reaching in their effect if followed. It penetrated to my inner consciousness that the mere offering of lip-service wasn’t enough. Still ignorant, still a little doubting, but in deadly earnest, I made up my mind to make an honest effort to try.
That was several years ago. The way has not been easy. The new way of living was strange at first, but all my thoughts were on it. The going was sometimes slow; halting were my steps among the difficulties of the path. But always, when troubles came, when doubts assailed and temptation was strong and the old desire returned, I knew where to go for aid. Helping others also strengthened me and help me to grow.
Today I had achieved, through all these things, a measure of happiness and contentment I had never known before. Material success has mattered little. But I know that my wants will be taken care of.
I expect to have difficulties every day of my life, I expect to encounter stops and hindrances, but now there is a difference. I have a new and tried foundation for every new day.